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Archive for the month “October, 2018”

Those Moments

When I lectured to groups, I’ld begin by asking my participants to close their eyes and attempt to recall a moment from their earlier lives. What always emerged, without any prompts, concerned a birthday, a family gathering, a funeral, an event detailed with sense experiences, a visual- perhaps of a glowing candlelit cake, the sound- of sweet laughter or the rub of a cheek against their own. I could see the faces of people transported, actually reliving those moments.We would discuss that it was impossible to remember every single day of a life lived, but those heightened by extreme happiness or sadness did in deed reside in our heads, available for easy recall.

When I taught high school previously, I also posed questions to my students,”How are you similar or different to your ancestors.” It was a postcolonial literature class and I was teaching books from Africa, India and the South America: the point being to bridge worlds and diversity, reminding the classes that we all came from somewhere and our own progenitors were once immigrants too. Moving from themselves through personal anecdotes to first person narratives by authors to indigenous cultures and novels gently lead them into a process that erased the demarcations of me and them. But once again, it was asking them to search in their heads for that special shared time with a loved one.

Often I used Margaret Laurence’s personal essays in Africa, a middle class Canadian herself, moving on to Rohinton Mistry or China Achebe or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In deed, One Hundred Years of Solitude is so full of magic, surreal situations of exaggerations and fantasy to delight and confound even Harry Potter fans. There are people in the book who can fly, others who literally shrink in old age, suggestive of a fairytale but based in actual horrendous events, reminding the reader that truth is often stranger than fiction.

To my initial prompt, student Rebecca had written about a yearly visit to her grandma in Germany who had grown up in wartime, a grandma who penny pinched, reused, recycled. Rebecca was not enamoured of the summers because she felt her Oma stingy. In a moment of revelation, the granddaughter realized that in her own eco saving moments, she too had disparaged the waste of disposables and had emulated her grandma’s stance of thriftiness, even organizing recycling groups. There were other stories that connected personality traits and role models, shuffling bubies who had lived in Kensington and kept fish fresh in their bathtubs until it was time for dinner. And with a self conscious guffaw and some amazement, the students comprehended that they might have inherited more than their names from their progenitors.

But what interested me was the moment, the flash, the epiphany and why certain memories had been retrievable while others languished with the business of daily routines. Of course, I intuited the memorable event was flagged by the emotion surrounding it, but true enough, our lives are filled with so many experiences conceived in or surrounded with joy, delight, anger or distress, times we wish we could hold on to, renewing them when we need comfort, or resurrecting them to better understand ourselves. Why did certain moments rise to the surface of consciousness , while others were lost deep in our heads?

Last night while attempting to sleep , I combed through my own life, searching for those episodes that still continue to haunt me. For the most part, there were single flashes: a grade one teacher who wore shiny brown oxfords along with a look of disdain for me, and a class in which unable to cut out leaves for the construction of leaf people, the boy who sat in the seat ahead turned with a soft smile to surreptitiously perform the act. And I in present time, re- experienced the relief of not enduring my teacher’s scorn and my gratitude towards him. But why had this small event of maybe 2-3 minutes persists and, I, still able to feel the embarrassment and relief of maybe 60 years ago?

Rummaging through my head again, I recalled a Halloween, married with a three year old, me intent on creating a big bird mask for her, spending days with papier mache, the result looking a bit like big bird on crack for the features although were distorted. When she saw it, she loved it: the essence of Big Bird obvious to her. However on the walkabout that dark night, other children spying macabre eyes too big, an oversized mouth, a lolling tongue, festooned with shaggy ocher bits of floating feathers of their favourite character, she began to shriek and cry out. My poor daughter, not understanding that she herself was NOT the cause of alarm, fused momentarily with her mask and terrified, refused to go out on all subsequent Halloweens for years. I can relive this event in full as if it were occurring before my eyes even today.

But not just the moments of extreme emotion rise in my memory, pictures of festivities such as backyard parties with friends interacting at tables set with golden decorations, lavish drooping white flowers, glittering glasses of wine, soft music and the happiness of celebrations marking transitions. Were there other scenarios that have not lodged, found a niche, a dark corner in my brain, but not eclipsed or overcrowded by other similar moments? Surely so.

As I get older and want to piece together what has contributed to being me, I am frustrated at not being able to locate other small gems that might provide insight. Hardened like tiny crystals, so many other experiences do not come forward, even in whiffs of dreams. What I have is a broad outline perhaps that is composed of the basic person I am: the art, the books, the teacher, the mother, the planner of events that afforded me pleasure, the broad strokes of a life. It’s a bit like Sisyphus climbing the rock over and over again, except I wish I had a small awl or hammer to claw away at the rock in hope of dislodging some fragment forgotten.


Sometimes from nowhere, you are given an unexpected present. It’s not your birthday, you haven’t done anything special, there’s no reason and then something pops up.

Being a total computer Luddite, I’m often unsure about what buttons to push or what messages to retrieve. Okay, if someone from Nigeria has information that I ve been left a small fortune from my long lost cousin Hector, I know not to respond. But I saw the yellow “ 2” on my Facebook page and took a chance that the message might be all right and no bug would be imported to corrupt my entire system. And I so, I pushed the tab, held my breath and waited.

From this vast vast world, a young woman wrote saying she had been cleaning up old books from her family home and had come upon a card, I,her teacher, had written to her in the late 90’s and it had encouraged her to continue on writing. In my mind’s eye I envisioned her, a bandanna wrapped around her dark head, she bent over a desk in the corner of her once bedroom where perusing her life from high school, as documented in a pile of discarded mementos, she came upon a small note tucked in a book, perhaps an adjunct to a favoured novel we had taught at Northern so many years ago, or maybe a loose scrap festooned with doodles that had captured her daydreaming of a future beyond our narrow walls. And loosening the pages, the note had edged out, just enough to catch her attention.

It had been a hard week and so I appreciated her taking the time and trouble to reach out to me. It meant so much. Some weeks or even years are hard as they are filled with our frustrations, our failures or confusions. For me, fall is always a time of disruption, sadness. Maybe because I harbour in my bones the time my dear mother passed away, and my head is filled with the outset of my father’s polio, also on a Labour Day weekend. As you age, some events become stronger, clinging to you when you least expect them, ghosts that continue to haunt and knock at your mental door, dragging you back to days described or lived in pain. For us who live in the north climes, the bare ness of trees, the shrivel of flowers, the recession of the warming glaze of the summer sun can trigger further your sadness.

And yet in the midst of my gloom, an unexpected gift from a shadowy face, someone I might pass on the street and now not recognize. We never know how we impact( or not) on the lives of others, or when we have said the right thing at the right moment, connecting, brightening someone else’s day. On the other hand, we may alternatively never know when we have erred in our judgment, made thoughtless, distracted by our own issues, and too late wish we could go back and apologize.

My years at Northern were a gift in so many ways. I had a wonderful supportive principal, a forward thinking smart department head, insightful colleagues and outstanding classes, the brightest and the best in many ways. It was difficult work and after an awkward beginning where in a grade 12 class horrible Hamish lead the troops to scribble on my blackboards, overtalk and/ or ignore me, I won the confidence of that class because one boy, Daniel, who suddenly raised his head from a posture of sleep, actually listened and admonished his classmates to do likewise. Hamish sat in a funk, unable to provoke further chaos and more heads turned towards me because what I was saying about The Tempest was interesting and challenging.

I prepared and over prepared often having three times as much information as necessary for a class. I sought innovative ways to engage the students, encouraging their own search in their studies, finding an angle, an interview, a vignette, an image and area they might want to explore. In one class where we brainstormed and, I encouraging their finding their own avenues, the result was brilliant presentations and outcomes that demonstrated their knowledge. From time machine scenarios and the creation of children’s storybooks to connections between physics and the rise and fall of themes, imagination, delight and understanding soared. These are moments that continue to warm me.

Was it being part of group work that had triggered my unexpected writer last week, or the quiet words I had shared written to congratulate my student on a composition of a perfect sentence that revealed insight or something deeper?

Teachers today are often maligned, disrespected as in the line, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. And true perhaps of some who muddy the waters or whose personal bias makes for uncomfortable classrooms and not great learning. But as in any profession, not every teacher’s pedagogy will meet the needs of every child. But so it is in every profession. Those who dazzle and those who limp along, trailing bodies of those disenchanted- doctors, plumbers, programmers all.

And that is not to suggest that every child in my classes soared., for you always recall the losses, the scowls, the complaints, harbouring the wish to return: try another tactic, face down a stare with a smile or make right what has continued to trouble you, a forever pebble in your shoe.

But I suppose I did have a few fans, quiet thoughtful types with mischievous grins whose sparking eyes or reflective assignment made me react and so because, I’m not a gregarious type although I have been known to be effusive unable to stop myself…, I must have written something significant that communicated heartfelt congratulations and encouragement to my student, urging her to stretch further.

And now , my note had come full circle, back to me, encouraging me to lift my head in the autumn doom of my thoughts, that to believe there is worthiness and in the tiny buds that will spring back to life.

Sad Days even a week later

Carol Shield’s final book Unless concerned a daughter who sat with a begging bowl at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor. She wore a placard with the word “Goodness”. The daughter appeared to be so overwrought with the state of the world that like an alms-begging monk ,she had retreated from polite society, her own cosy, loving home to the hard pavement, brought down by the numerous calamities of daily life.

I understand that image of the bereft woman so well these passed weeks. The world with Donald Trump and our mini-sized Trump here in Ontario delight in destruction. This past Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving began for us with The Star’s reporting the threat of destroying Bill148 that upholds workers’ rights. For the States, in last few weeks the Kavanaugh debacle that ended in his selection and confirmation to the Supreme Court made me want to weep. His behaviour perhaps uncorroborated in the past by a few select witnesses, still portrayed the man in the present in a toddler’s rage, marked by a level of tantrum, insults, egotistical, self- pitying, beer drinking embarrassment that does not, I believe, align with the coolheaded judgements he will be asked to make as a supreme jurist.

Leaving me aghast was Susan Collins who voted for him, a supposedly independent thinker who occasionally moves against her party.For her to affirm the nomination was treacherous, strange and pitiable as a woman. All who listened to Blasey Ford found her credible, 100% identification of her attacker and her demeanour impossible to criticize, yet now she is cast with all the other survivors of these acts indelibly etched in their souls, their testimonies ignored. And worse yet, society since the Anita Hill investigation, believing themselves more open, more caring, more listening and more supportive of women, have shown that is not the case at all. Perhaps only more two- faced. In fact, we cycle and recycle the same old terrible stories with the same sad terrible results, the victim tossed aside, the perpetrator, like his pussygrabbing boss, boasting false innocence, faces shining in triumph. Small heroes, but heroes in deed were Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota who voted against Kavanaugh, the later who will lose her seat but not her rational ability to see clearly and act appropriately.

And here too, the women one had once believed independent, clearheaded thinkers have sided with our Premier, all ready demonstrating their allegiance to outmoded ideas and the brutish shenanigans that accompany their party head. A colleague of my husband’s suggested Caroline Mulroney is ever too much a daddy’s girl, willing to please her father figure boss,Ford : ironic as her real father disagreed with commandeering the Notwithstanding clause that hangs over our heads for anything or anyone who disagrees with him. And Christine Elliot, another we had believed to be rational, perhaps still in her husband’s shadow, not finding her own legs, more confident to ride the coattails of the head man here. It certainly perplexes in these times when women are supposed to be more empowered, able to knock their heads against glass ceilings. But perhaps still unable or in this political situation unwilling to break through that ceiling. So much for the chatter around Sheryl Sandberg’s “ lean in”, be assertive mantra. Rather, smile sweetly and nod your pretty little heads, girls.

What begins to emerge are two worlds, the division in the States as promoted by Trump, a world where compromise, cooperation, empathy, research and thoughtfulness is tromped upon, and the yahoos prevail. The people who cheer Trump on no matter what he says or does. That the US economy rises must be self-satisfying, yet he takes credit where he deserves none, riding on Obama’s coattails. And one begins to wonder, incredulous that Barack Obama once was even elected and lived in the White House. How did that happen when such a reversal has occurred? I shaking my head at the inconsistencies. And still worse, the blockheads who buoy up the Trump era, agreeing that ‘ fake news’ or the dirty Democrats are responsible for all of society ills and complaints.

I begin to think that some of us do live in a totally different world. Yes, we see the protesters who not only storm the steps in Washington, but hold Jeff Flake’s elevator door, shouting their truth. We read the reports in credible papers such as The New York Times. We watch John Oliver’s weekly and Stephen Colbert’s nightly attacks , laughing at the incredulous, ludicrous behaviours perpetrated on immigrants, dreamers, women, all “the others”, and know these voices that speak out are in deed preaching to the choir because the voters who put these men in office PUT them in office. Even Lady Gaga and Robert Di Niros are mere whisperers among the raucous shouting of the mesmerized.

And what of these blind folk who follow, do not think, the populous who have endorsed with their votes, their shouting rage, their staunch feeling that Trump speaks for them? They recall for me the Peter Brueghel painting of The Blind Leading the Blind, one attached to the other, ready to topple over another, not just blind but unwilling to see. Who are they that they can persist in a notion of the future where climate change, isolationism, and greed will support and improve the lives of their own children? Even some of the supporters must be women or have daughters?

Where do we turn, transfixed , heartbroken by the shape of our society?

When I read Unless so many years ago, I was not particularly impressed, The Stone Diaries and certainly Larry’s Party exerting a stronger impact on my evaluation of Shield’s writing. However in these present times, the symbol, the depiction of the daughter Norah and Norah’s mother, Reta’s helplessness in the scourge of their times persisted and resurrected itself in my head.

Perplexed but understanding of the daughter’s action in Unless, Shields writes,

“Why is Norah acting, or not-acting, as she does? Tom thinks she’s suffering post-traumatic stress, but he… [l]acking answers, and under the influence of Danielle Westerman( therapist), Reta adopts a theory of female exclusion, which she expounds in a series of letters addressed (but not posted) to men guilty of failing to recognise women’s achievements. As Reta sees it, ‘The world is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.”

So sad moments. As we treat women, the disenfranchised so we treat ALL people. To be alive in the 21st Century and to be behaving thus is incomprehensible, shameful. So I weep.

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